The second chapter of The Prehistoric Pueblo World, and the first to cover one of the regions that are the main focus of the book, looks at the furthest western end of the Pueblo world: the area north and west of the Colorado River, in what is now the Arizona Strip, southwestern Utah, and southern Nevada. This chapter, by Margaret Lyneis, begins with a general introduction to the issues at stake in this region, particularly the question of the major decline in population after 1150. Lyneis mentions several theories for what happened to the population here that is often called the “Virgin Branch” of the Anasazi tradition, including migration eastward into other Anasazi regions (for which she finds no evidence in regions further east), migration northward to join the Fremont people (which she seems to find fairly plausible), a shift to a more mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle that leaves little archaeological record (about which she seems somewhat dubious), and physical and cultural extinction (which seems to be her preferred choice, although she isn’t very clear about it). Her intention for the chapter seems to be to evaluate the archaeological record in this region for the Pueblo III period with this question and related ones in mind. She doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned with finding a definitive answer, however, and in any case she doesn’t.
Lyneis divides this region into four major districts: the eastern and western plateau areas north of the Colorado River, divided by Kanab Creek, the St. George Basin further west, and the lower valleys of the Virgin and Muddy Rivers even further west. These basically seem to fall into two groups, with the plateaus distinguished from each other mostly in that the eastern part is somewhat better-known archaeologically and the St. George Basin distinguished from the lower river valleys mainly in elevation. In the plateaus, site density seems to increase with elevation up to 8000 feet, although many of these sites may be seasonal (presumably summer). In the river valleys, settlement is concentrated along the rivers, and since there is very little rainfall irrigation would have been necessary for agriculture.
This is not a very well-understood part of the Southwest archaeologically. Even chronology, typically an area of study that is more highly developed in the Southwest than elsewhere, is fairly rough and difficult, owing largely to the fact that few sites in this area have been excavated and very few tree-ring dates are therefore available. As is usual in the absence of tree-rings, dating relies mainly on pottery types, but the lack of excavation and other difficulties make this pretty difficult in the far west. Most dating is done by comparison of local Virgin wares to similar wares from the Kayenta area further east that are better-known, as well as the presence of trade wares from other regions.
All that said, there is still some information about chronology available, and surprisingly (to me, at least), it indicates that the Anasazi presence here is not the result of a late spread of Pueblo traditions during the expansionary Pueblo II period. Rather, the Virgin area is part of the Pueblo world from the very beginning, and there are sites (though not many) in every part of the region going back to Basketmaker II times and continuing through the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods before the major period of population growth in Pueblo II. As usual, it is harder to tell how long Pueblo occupation of the area continued, but there is evidence from trade wares that at least the eastern plateau area continued to be occupied into the late twelfth century and perhaps beyond. There is less evidence of late occupation further west, but not none. Lyneis notes, and this seems pretty plausible to me, that the breakdown of trade networks involving Kayenta pottery in the late Pueblo II/early Pueblo III time frame make later occupations in the far west less visible, given the reliance on Kayenta pottery for dating. Nonetheless, it is clear that the peak of population came during Pueblo II, as is the case almost everywhere else in the Southwest.
As for settlement patterns, a key focus of this volume as a whole, Lyneis describes the “dispersed household” as the fundamental unit of settlement, with a low population density for the region throughout its history. It is possible that these households were at least loosely clustered in some places and at some times, although there has been very little research into this. In any case, whether the households were physically clustered or not they clearly must have interacted with each other, since a single household would be much too small to function as a self-contained community.
There are two main layouts seen for these households, which vary geographically within the overall region. In the western river valleys and plateaus, which is to say most of the region, a typical household consists of one or more habitation rooms and several storerooms, which are generally oriented in a curve or arc, creating a sort of courtyard. Beyond the possible small-scale clustering mentioned above, there are a few clear examples of larger-scale aggregation of these households, although they don’t show any particular temporal patterning (a strong contrast to the increasing aggregation over time seen in other regions) and it doesn’t seem that there was a great deal of large-scale community integration as reflected in communal architecture. In addition to these few large aggregations of households, there are also sites formed from the combination of two or more households into a larger site, often circular, which nonetheless still clearly shows the spatial distinctions between the component household areas.
The eastern plateaus are generally similar in settlement patterns to the more westerly areas, with little aggregation and even the larger sites not being very big in absolute terms, but there are a few differences. Most of these seem to reflect influence from the Kayenta tradition to the east, although the extent to which this shows direct immigration of Kayenta people west is unclear. The main differences are that roomblocks in this area tend to be straighter than those to the west, with linear arrangements rather than arcs, and that the rooms are bigger on average.
One additional element to Lyneis’s discussion of architecture and settlement patterns concerns the presence of kivas in this area. Traditionally, the Virgin Anasazi have been distinguished from other branches in part by the fact that they did not build or use structures comparable to the kivas found elsewhere in the Anasazi cultural sphere, and the occasional presence of kivas in the far west has been attributed to Kayenta influence. Lyneis doesn’t really challenge this consensus, but she does note that of the few kivas found in sites on the plateaus not all are in contexts otherwise associated with Kayenta influence.
Although the settlement patterns Lyneis describes are pretty similar throughout the region, the small geographic differences do seem to pattern in the same way, with the eastern plateaus being a bit different from the three western areas, which are quite similar to each other. This is the case with trade-good distribution as well, and Lyneis identifies two likely trade networks: one linking the Lowland Muddy-Virgin area with the western plateaus (with the St. George Basin presumably being involved as well, although Lyneis doesn’t mention this specifically) and another linking the eastern plateaus to the Kayenta region. These two networks did interact with each other, but the evidence does seem to show that they were separate networks rather than segments of one larger network. Most notably, while Kayenta and San Juan wares are found in both regions in small quantities, there is a significant dropoff in the amounts found between sites on the east and west sides of Kanab Creek. This implies that these wares were mainstays of the eastern exchange network but were less frequently transmitted on to the western network, which was based more on pottery from the western plateaus moving to the Lowland Muddy-Virgin valleys. This western network was particularly active during the mid-Pueblo II period, when around 39% of the pottery found in the Lowland Muddy-Virgin area was made in the western plateaus, including not just decorated wares but utilitarian graywares as well. This level of exchange is remarkable and reminiscent of the massive amounts of both decorated and utility wares moving from the Chuska Mountains into Chaco Canyon at the same time. Also similar to the Chuska-Chaco connection, the movement of western plateau pottery into the lowland valleys seems to have declined precipitously in the late Pueblo II period, when it is replaced by very different wares coming up from the lower Colorado River valley, where the Patayan culture was making pottery in a very different way from that typical of the Anasazi. This dropoff was not paralleled in the small numbers of Kayenta and San Juan decorated wares, however, suggesting that the eastern trade network was indeed independent of the western one and continued after its demise.
Lyneis interprets this evidence as showing non-centralized trade among largely autonomous communities of egalitarian households. She contrasts this to the more centralized interpretations of scholars such as David Wilcox, who sees a vast region-wide network connecting the far west to Chaco, with Kayenta expansion serving as a disruptive force.
However these trade networks are interpreted, their decline definitely precedes the depopulation of the area, perhaps by a rather long time if it is correct that population continuity is disguised by the lack of Kayenta trade wares with which to date late sites. When the regional abandonment does come, it seems to progress rapidly west-to-east, with the lowlands being abandoned around 1160 and the plateaus by 1200. Lyneis considers environmental factors to be the most likely explanation for these population changes, especially in the plateau areas where agriculture is marginal even under the best circumstances. There is some evidence in the climatic record for a significant deterioration of conditions around the time of abandonment, so this idea has some support at least for the plateaus. There is not as much evidence for the lowland river valleys, and while the Virgin River may well have experienced lower flow as a result of drought, the Muddy River is fed by underground springs and would not be as directly affected by local precipitation. Lyneis gives some other possible environmental reasons for reduced productivity along the rivers, including channel-cutting, flooding, and increased salinatization (which has been a persistent problem for agriculture in southern Nevada in modern times), but I think her strongest suggestion may be that, with environmental deterioration forcing the abandonment of most of the region, the residents of the valleys may have lost their valuable trading partners (remember all that pottery coming in from the western plateaus?) and been forced to leave.
And this brings us back to the question of where these people went. Lyneis suggests that immigrants from the Kayenta area or their descendents may well have gone back to the Kayenta homeland, but that there is no evidence that the indigenous Virgin populations followed them east. There is an apparent population maximum in the eastern plateaus about 50 years after the maximum population in the Lowland Muddy-Virgin area, but Lyneis concludes that this probably represents continued Kayenta immigration rather than Virgin emigration. She does not come to an ultimate conclusion about what did happen to the Virgin Branch, which is not surprising given the paucity of evidence about the Virgin generally.
There is one question remaining in the context of this post, however, and that is what any of this has to do with Chaco. I don’t really have an answer except that understanding what else was going on throughout the region can only help in understanding the mysterious things about Chaco and its time, although above I did note a few interesting parallels in trade network organization between the far west and the Chaco region which may have some enlightening comparative value that could be found with further study. Overall, however, this is just one chapter in a book with many, and while some of those other chapters will undoubtedly have more direct relevance to Chaco, this one serves more to set the scene.